How to Stay Calm When Everything Falls Apart

Tree silhouetted by moonlight

Strategies and tools for navigating challenging times based on research

Everything was going fine. Spring was just around the corner.

The economy was booming.

Then news from China began appearing about a virus. Many of us had sympathy for those suffering, but it was miles away.

Then it wasn’t miles away.

It was on our doorstep.

Everything fell apart. Nothing is the same.

Change hit all of us like an out-of-control freight train, and our entire way of life and living were derailed.

Nothing is the same.

If you’re like most people, your stress hormones went off like a rocket. The ancient fight-or-flight response overwhelmed and shut down any ability to think. The amygdala sent a distress signal to the hypothalamustriggering a cascade of hormonal changes.

Many of us are still feeling the panicanxiety, increased blood pressure, and a bunch of other negative physical and mental responses.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

We can’t change the facts; we can only change how we respond to them — how we navigate through our own Moria to the other side.

Here are some ways of mitigating the stress and anxiety, finding calm, and coping with change.

1. Step Back, Sit, Close Your Eyes, and Breathe in Calm

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It seems counterintuitive, but your first step is to stop everything and just breathe.

“Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, has devoted much of his career to learning how people can counter the stress response by using a combination of approaches that elicit the relaxation response.”¹

Take several, deep inhalations and full exhalations, but don’t make yourself dizzy. Breathe slowly in and out until you feel some of your tension releasing.

Place your focus on breathing, repeat a soothing word like calm or peace, imagine an image that makes you feel peaceful. This will still your mind and swirling thoughts.

2. Take a Time Out to De-stress Your Body and Brain

If possible, avoid making any decisions immediately. You need to gain perspective and release the stress hormones and emotions surging through your body and brain before you can choose the right course of action.

Set a timer for at least 30 minutes and get away from everything for that amount of time. Unless it’s a real emergency, most situations can be set aside for a brief period.

Get outside if you can. Take a walk and focus on your surroundings, not everything you have to do or what is stressing you.

“Sunlight and darkness trigger the release of hormones in your brain. Exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of a hormone called serotonin. Serotonin is associated with boosting mood and helping a person feel calm and focused.”²

Notice where your muscles are tense and focus on relaxing them. A good technique is to make them more tense and then release. Body scan meditations can also help — if you can calm yourself enough to do one.

3. Engage Your Analytical Brain, Make a List, and Start to Control the Craziness

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You’re most likely crazed with everything you have to do. Take out paper and pen or bring up a Word document and list everything that you need to address.

According to Carrie Barron, M.D., Director of the Creativity for Resilience Program at Dell Medical School in Austin, Texas, lists are a way of working through confusion. They help you prioritize, separate what’s important from what’s not important, and show the steps you need to take. They relieve the pressure.³

If you’re like most people, you will feel better just by getting everything out of your head and putting it in paper.

Once you have your list, prioritize it. The easiest way to prioritize when confronted with a lengthy list of things is the paired comparison method.

Give each item on your list a letter of the alphabet, then compare them in pairs. A or B? You decide B. B or C. Still B. B or D. D is more important. Compare D to each item on the list. The item that is the last to be chosen is most important task, and it becomes №1 on your list of priorities.

Start over with the process until you have compared every item. Your final list shows your priorities from most important to least important.

  • Study your final list of priorities. Put an asterisk next to anything that you — and only you — must do. Focus your energy and time on tasks that require you to handle them.
  • Set aside times on your calendar for your most important tasks.
  • Say no to activities that you don’t want to do or can’t do.
  • Ask for help if you need it and have family and friends pitch in at home.

If you’re having a hard time prioritizing, try using the Eisenhower Matrix.

4. Stop Chewing Your Thoughts like a Hungry Cow

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Cows are ruminants; they gain nourishment by chewing their cud over and over and over. Rumination is good for cows; not so much for people. In people, it is the thief of calm.

Rumination is repetitiously thinking about something and attaching negative feelings to it. You imagine worse-case scenarios in bloody detail, what-if movies play in an endless loop, and any hope of calm is lost. It’s like picking at a sore over and over. It never heals. This leads to more panic, anxiety, helplessness, and stress. Why imagine situations that may never happen?

“…Rumination has been shown to increase engagement in depressed thinking, is related to negative emotions, including anxiety, anger, and depressed mood, and can prolong negative affect.”⁴

Rumination can occur even without your being aware of it. When your stress elevates, when negative emotions start taking over, you could be unconsciously ruminating. The solution is using your mood to focus your attention on your thoughts.

If you discover that you are ruminating, stop the monologue and the endless loop. Become present and mindful.

  • Where are you:
  • What do you see?
  • What can you hear?
  • What can you feel?

Look at your list of priorities and settle into one task. Use the Pomodoro technique to focus on that one task for 25 minutes without interruption. Take a 5-minute break and then do another 25 minutes of intense focus. The greater your focus on a specific task, the more you eliminate excessive rumination.

5. Watch Out for Negative Self-talk that Can Pull You Down

How you speak to yourself affects how you feel about a situation, a person, and yourself. The more negative your self-talk, the more you undermine your coping ability and self-confidence.

“Becoming aware of exactly what you are saying to yourself about yourself can help you understand why you react the way you do to events and people in your life. It can also give you a handle on controlling your moods, repeating your successes and short-circuiting your shortcomings.”⁵

Just as you did with rumination, you need to become aware of your self-talk. If you find yourself saying disempowering things, stop and turn off the volume. Replace negative self-talk with positive statements and affirmations.

6. Lean on Your Support System

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No one walks through life without needing help from time to time. You especially need help when the going gets rough. Stay in touch with family and friends even if you are far away. People evolved as social animals and need a tribe to feel safe.

Who’s your tribe?

  • Who can you ask for help?
  • Who can help you see things objectively?
  • Who has resources that you can use?
  • Whom do you trust to share your emotions with?
  • Who can cushion the blow, support you, and not judge you?
  • Who is always there for you when you need them?

Reaching out to your tribe can help you feel grounded and safe. You may discover that they have faced what you are facing and can give you sound advice based on experience.

Be there for them, too, when they hit a wall, and everything falls apart. Being able to help someone else can be a huge boost to your self-esteem and self-confidence when you most need to be reminded that you can face challenges and succeed.

Cherish your tribe. They can keep you safe, pull you out when the quicksand threatens to drown you, and hold you up when you’re falling down.

Resources

  1. Understanding the Stress Response, Harvard Health
  2. What are the benefits of sunlight?
  3. “How Making Lists Can Quell Anxiety and Breed Creativity” by Carrie Barron, M.D., Psychology Todayhttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3296188/
  4. “Rumination as a Mediator of Chronic Stress Effects on Hypertension: A Causal Model” by William Gerin, Matthew J. Zawadzki, and Joshua M. Smyth, International Journal of Hypertension
  5. A Description of Self-talk_ Narrative Self-talk to Examine the Value of Self-talk In Soccer Player. Daftari, M.A., Sofian Omar Fauzee, Sadeghi, H, Department of Sports Science, University Putra Malaysia; and Akbari, A., Department of Exercise Physiology, Central Tehran Branch, Islamic Azad University,Tehran, Iran

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